It was a blustery morning at the Wellington airport, yet even without the Maori symbol on its tail, I would have guessed that the jet I was boarding was Air New Zealand. The seats in first-class were covered in woolly-white sheepskin.
I ambled back to row 16 and settled for a blue cloth cover.
Sheep are big business in this land of bold beauty; there are constant reminders that those woolly creatures outnumber people by almost 20 to 1.
In front of me two rosy-cheeked youngsters were tugging at fuzzy tams and unwinding themselves from mufflers. Coats were shed to reveal distinctive sweaters in natural hues that you knew had been hand-knit.
A flight attendant took the aisle and greeted us as if she were the keeper of the keys to the Magic Kingdom:
"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls."
Tea and Cakes
It was like a jolly family trip, this hop to Dunedin on the South Island.
We were served tea and cakes at 11, or "Elevenses," as they say in the British Isles. And there were full pots of brewed tea . . . no tea bags here.
As we began our descent toward the emerald earth, the grass appeared to be studded with mushrooms. White splotches were scattered in every direction; only the landing strip was clear.
Of course they were sheep--ewes and lambs, for this was October and spring down here. Weeks-old lambs tottered about and scampered in dizzy circles.
That night I stayed at a farm near Milton where I was greeted by 2,000 ewes, 2,700 lambs, several wily sheep dogs and a handsome farm couple, Loraine and David Larner.
They began taking guests last February, and have welcomed travelers from Portland to Japan. But they put that activity on hold for six weeks during lambing.
"There were 25 wet days in September, which is terrible for lambing," said David, running a hand through his shock of gray hair. "They get wind chill and it's all over. We were out with them from half past 5 every morning until dark--maybe 6 or 7 at night."
"We ride our motorbikes into the paddocks and check on each ewe," Loraine interrupted. "Out of a couple of thousand, we help about 200 to give birth. It's a busy time and at the end of it we are really quite exhausted. But it's our income; it's our food; it's our life."
She laughed merrily and tugged me toward the door.
"But that's done now. Do come see the garden."
We walked past crimson azaleas and tulips and roses. We glanced off toward the wool shed, where shearing would soon begin, and up to a ridge of western hills.
Over a robust dinner of salmon from nearby rivers and a fine roast of lamb, Loraine talked about the peace and quiet of living on a farm:
"Out here when you hear the odd ambulance over on the road, you know it is someone you know and love. You are instantly concerned, and you listen for the direction of the siren and call to offer help. In the city I hear an ambulance and I realize they are carrying strangers and there is nothing I can do. It seems lonely."
Loraine grew up on a sheep farm near Christchurch; David's parents were dairy farmers on the North Island. Their teen-age son is in boarding school in Dunedin.
As we cleared the table, Loraine presented that crisp meringue confection, the Down Under treat called pavlova .
Mornings Begin With Song
"We may not be able to travel ourselves for the next 20 years because of the responsibilities of the farm," she said, "but having guests is a happy solution. We get to hear about other countries and how people live and what individuals think--not just governments.
"I think most farm families really enjoy the company even more than the additional income."
There on the farm, where mornings begin with the song of a thrush and the phone is a five-party line, the Larners never lock a door.
"It may not be the real world," Loraine admitted with a smile, "but it is a wonderfully pleasant way to live."
And, I realized as I waved goodby with hands warmed by new wool gloves, it is a wonderfully hard place to leave.
For information about New Zealand farm stays write Farmhouse and Country Home Holidays, Box 31250, Auckland 9, New Zealand.